By Dr. Scott Rosenthal
Sciatica! You know the pain that shoots down the leg from a “pinched” nerve in the back? Or a feeling of numbness, weakness, burning, or pins and needles? If you haven’t experienced it, chances are you may one day, as it is estimated to affect up to 43 percent of us at some time.(1)
Sciatica results from damage to the nerves that exit your lower back. It can be painfully debilitating and crush the ability of your leg or foot to function normally. I have met many sufferers as they first walked (or crawled) into my office. The degree of nerve interference and loss of function must be taken very seriously. But what if the damaged part of the nerve does not shoot pain down your leg? What if it controls the function of your heart, liver, lungs or other vital organ?
If you’ve had sciatica, did anyone tell you that the affected nerves (known as the spinal nerves) are referred to as “mixed” nerves? They have many nerve fibers that control more than those you feel. Vital messages are sent back and forth from your brain to the muscles, organs, glands and blood vessels through the same spinal nerves that can cause sciatica when damaged.
You may be familiar with the back and/or leg pain following lifting or sleeping in the wrong position, but when is the last time you woke up and proclaimed “I must have slept wrong. My liver is killing me!” Most of your body parts do NOT produce any warning symptoms when sick. Once the alarm finally sounds, the condition may have existed for weeks, months or years. Understanding this physiological reality can be life-saving.
Chiropractic is well-known for helping alleviate the nerve pressure that causes sciatica and preventing the need for surgery.(2) However, the role chiropractic plays in helping people overcome problems with organs, glands and blood vessels is relatively unknown. Your medical physician may be unaware as well. This could be a lingering result of the American Medical Association’s illegal policy branding chiropractic as “unscientific” that ended with a landmark court case in 1987.(3) The AMA was found guilty of violating anti-trust laws and was ordered to stop its slanderous policy designed to eliminate chiropractic. Today, the AMA recognizes that chiropractic is an option for at least back pain. I fear a few of its members still hold on to unwarranted prejudices.
Chiropractic has asserted from it very beginnings that nerve root compression from spinal misalignment (called Vertebral Subluxation) can result in damaging effects to the spinal nerves and the body parts that they control. Our current understanding supports this early theory. Additionally, other mechanisms of nerve damage have been uncovered (e.g. chemical irritation from joint inflammation). The spinal nerve is like a telephone line conduit carrying thousands of fibers leading to all parts of the body. Unfortunately, as it passes through the small opening created by two of your spinal bones connecting together, it lacks the protective sheath seen in nerves outside (known as the epineurium and perineurium). Like a bare wire, the spinal nerve fibers are sensitive to interference.
Research has found that a pressure of only 10 mm of mercury (Hg) produced a 60 percent blockage of spinal nerve communication in just 15 minutes.(4) Another study found that 5-10 mm Hg pressure restricted the blood flow to the spinal nerve and resulted in nerve compression from venous swelling. Further nerve function was compromised by impaired nutrient flow feeding the nerve.(5) To put this in perspective, the pressure on your palm when holding five one dollar bills is about 10 mm Hg. This amount is miniscule when considering that the pressure squeezing on your arm from an inflated blood pressure cuff is around 160 mm Hg. Further study confirms that the compressive forces on your spinal nerve roots can exist silently without causing any pain!(6)
Chiropractors help people not by directly treating an organ, blood vessel or gland, but by adjusting the spine gently back into place. As with sciatica, once realigned, the pressure on the spinal nerve root is alleviated and your nervous system regains the ability to properly control the affected body part. Witnessing the improvements in our patient’s health beyond pain relief is common. Hundreds of case reports match what we experience in our office each day. Below are a few studies that demonstrate how rebalancing the spine with chiropractic care can have positive effects on the rest of your body:
One study (published in the Journal of Clinical Chiropractic Pediatrics) of 332 children 27 days to five-years-old found that 82 to 89 percent of the children no longer had ear infections following chiropractic care.(7)
High Blood Pressure
Placebo-controlled research published in the Journal of Human Hypertension demonstrates the effectiveness of chiropractic care with people suffering from high blood pressure. Compared to the patients receiving fake adjustments, those who had a real chiropractic adjustment saw an average 14 mm Hg greater drop in systolic blood pressure (the top number in a blood pressure count), and an average 8 mm Hg greater drop in diastolic blood pressure (the bottom blood pressure number). Both groups were not taking any blood pressure medication during the eight week study. (8)
Study leader George Bakris, M.D., director of the University of Chicago Hypertension Center, stated in an interview with WebMD, "This [chiropractic] procedure has the effect of not one, but two blood-pressure medications given in combination." He further noted, "…it seems to be adverse-event free. We saw no side effects and no problems."(9)
The results of an extensive review of the scientific literature regarding spinal adjustments (the primary procedure used by chiropractors) and the immune response was reported by Jack Neil of the Anglo-European College of Chiropractic at the 9th Chiropractic, Osteopathy, and Physiotherapy Conference in the United Kingdom. Neil’s review looked at all research up to 2012 and confirmed that spinal adjustments may lead to the reduction of chemicals associated with inflammation while increasing the number of antibodies that are part of the immune response. Spinal adjustments may also increase the number of leukocytes (white blood cells involved in defending the body against infectious disease and foreign matter) as well as positively affecting other immune system cells.(10)
In a 2011 Japanese study, chiropractic spinal adjustments were found to have a direct effect on the autonomic nervous system (the part of your nervous that controls organs, blood vessels and glands).
Twelve men with neck pain were given PET scans (functional imaging that produces a 3-D view of the functional processes of the body) to evaluate the activities within the brain after chiropractic spinal adjustments. The areas of the brain that involve stress reactions and pain processing were shown to be altered. Additionally, salivary lab testing revealed that the subjects had significantly lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. (11)
Crohn's disease patients were divided into two groups, a chiropractic treatment group (consisting of 17 patients) and a control group (consisting of 34 patients). The authors concluded, “According to the results of this study the possibility may be considered that chronic nerve compression secondary to vertebral subluxation in the thoracic and lumbar regions had a significant effect on the immune function of these allergy and Crohn's disease patients. It is further postulated that this nerve compression leads to a chronic functional disorder having a significant effect on digestion, absorption of nutrients and liquids, conveyance of food as well as various other functions of the digestive tract extending to excretion.” (12)
Although damaged nerve flow to an organ, gland or vessel is not termed “sciatica”, its presence can wreak havoc of greater proportions without producing warning signs. This not only makes a chiropractic check-up useful before a health crisis arises, but worth consideration when facing a challenge. There is nothing more exciting for a doctor of chiropractic and his/her patient than to observe restored health as the nerve is freed and function restored! The next time you have a problem that you may have not previously associated with your spinal nerves, ask: “Could this be sciatica of an organ?”
1. Spine. 2008 Oct 15;33(22):2464-72
2. Spine. 2013 May 15;38(11):953-64
4. Sharpless SK: “Susceptibility of spinal roots to compression block.” The Research Status of Spinal Manipulative Therapy. NINCDS monograph 15, DHEW publication (NIH) 76-998:155, 1975
5. Rydevik BL: “The effects of compression on the physiology of nerve roots.” JMPT 15(1):62, 1992
6. Hause M: “Pain and the nerve root.” Spine 18(14):2053, 1993
7. The role of the chiropractic adjustment in the care and treatment of 332 children with otitis media. Fallon, JM. Journal of Clinical Chiropractic Pediatrics Vol 2, No. 2 1997 p.167-183
8. Bakris G, Dickholtz M, Meyer PM, et al: "Atlas vertebra realignment and achievement of arterial pressure goal in hypertensive patients: a pilot study." Journal of Human Hypertension 2007:1 6
10. Manipulative therapy and immune response: A literature review of the chiropractic and osteopathic evidence. Clinical Chiropractic 2012; 15(3): 186
11. Cerebral Metabolic Changes in Men After Chiropractic Spinal Manipulation for Neck Pain. Alternative Therapies. 2011, November/December; 17 (6): 12-17
12. Journal of Vertebral Subluxation Research 2003 (Mar); 4 (4)